for National Geographic News
Weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, people on Mississippi's Gulf Coast are clinging to what's left of their homes, as the devastated region inches its way to recovery.
In East Biloxi on the central Mississippi coast, Anthony Gazzo fled in time to beat the 30-foot (9-meter) storm surge. But his neighbor and her three young children insisted on staying.
"We begged them to leave, but they wouldn't,'' Gazzo said.
The neighbors remained in their living room, and the water kept rising. "They tipped the couch on its end and stood on it and climbed into the attic,'' Gazzo said.
In time, they swam to high ground and found help, according to Gazzo. His neighbor and her children are now in Spokane, Washington.
"She's not coming back," Gazzo said.
Several weeks after the hurricane, this neighborhood of bungalows is still scarcely more than piles of rubble. But Gazzo says East Biloxi will always be his home.
"I've lived here most of my life," he said, shoveling mud from in front of his house, which listed dangerously. "I plan on staying right here."
Gazzo is not alone. According to the office of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, of the 431,000 households who have registered for disaster assistance with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), 77 percent are staying in the ZIP code in which they lived before the storm hit.
One reason so many Mississippians are staying is that they have few resources and few alternatives.
"I have 126 dollars in my bank account, Gazzo said. "Not a lick of flood insurance."
According to the 2000 U.S. census, Mississippi is the third poorest state in the nation. About 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, compared to 12 percent nationwide.